Poli sci prof studies why women run (or don’t run) for office

In a survey study of women interested in running for office, the analysis highlights intriguing new insights.

Political Science Professor Dawn Teele
Dawn Teele, assistant professor of political science at Penn's School of Arts and Sciences, was one of four researchers who organized a survey of female political aspirants in 2016.

While the political world waits with bated breath to see how women candidates fare in the upcoming midterm elections, the recent surge of women’s candidacies raises a more fundamental question: What motivates women to run—or not run—at all?

Dawn Teele, the Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Penn School for Arts and Sciences, explored as much through a survey study, in collaboration with scholars from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Rutgers-Camden, and the Analyst Institute.

Teele and co-authors surveyed graduates from Emerge America, a large campaign-training organization for Democratic women. The 15-minute survey was conducted in the 12-week period between May and August 2016 with 702 respondents, encompassing 37 percent of all Emerge alumnae; questions focused on the structural, situational, and psychological barriers to candidate emergence. Most of the alumnae were college-educated, and many were from urban areas, but Emerge boasts a large number of women from under-represented identity groups. 

Though psychological barriers–fears of running and loss of privacy–depressed women’s ambition, structural and situational factors reigned supreme.

“We think women make more relationally embedded decisions about running,” Teele says. “They think more about the impact on family, the impact on their personal life, and they really only do it when they’re sure they have the full support of everyone in their family. Whereas men tend to have more incipient political ambition and make less relationally embedded choices."

Among Emerge alumnae, in particular, the analysis concluded financial contributions played a significant role.

“What we are finding, in many ways, is there is this sort of difference in domestic contributions, or domestic labor, that’s driving differences for racial groups in run rates thereafter,” Teele says. “So, in two-earner households, white women are more likely to run than black women; in one-earner households, white women are much more likely to run than black women. Right now, we don’t know exactly why that’s the case, but we are going to follow up with some interviews, and we have a student planning some ethnographic research.”  

Dubbed the “Breadwinner Moms” effect, women who contributed more than 50 percent of household expenses were less likely to run.

Fundraising was another red flag. Although women do raise as much money as men, they have to work harder for it. 

“When women run for office at the national level, they get as much money to fund their campaigns as men do, in part because Super PACs and Emily’s List are big donors,” Teele explains. “But, women themselves tend to donate in smaller denominations, and a lower proportion of women donate money to campaigns. So, fundraising has been a stickier issue for female candidates, even if, at the national level, they’re quite effective fundraisers. 

“At local levels, it can be seen as more daunting.”

As for general patterns among women who do run for office: Teele says they are fed into state and local politics through a teaching career, are less likely to be married, and less likely to have children. Female candidates also tend to begin political careers later in life:  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi first ran for Congress at age 47. 

"[Pelosi] was ‘old’ when she entered politics, but recall women have a longer life span,” Teele says. “There’s no reason we have to end our careers as early as men do.” 

For those who want to find a way to help women in politics, Teele says get out your pocketbook.